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In Civilian Snapshot Of Iraq, An Artist Is A 'Corpse Washer'

In his latest novel, Iraqi author Sinan Antoon gives readers a stark portrait of contemporary Iraq. Originally written in Arabic and translated into English by Antoon himself, The Corpse Washer was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize this year.

The book's protagonist is a young man named Jawad, an aspiring artist from a family of traditional Shiite corpse washers and shrouders in Baghdad. Jawad breaks from the family business and attends art school, where he devotes himself to the celebration of life rather than the ritual surrounding death.

But, Antoon tells NPR's Kelly McEvers, "Fate would have it otherwise, and he's forced to go back and to practice the same profession that his ancestors did."

In 2003, the U.S. invasion claims the life of Jawad's father, and Iraq is engulfed in chaos. With his family broken, and civilian bodies piling up, Jawad returns to washing corpses. After years spent representing life aesthetically through art, Jawad now faces the tremendous power of death over life.

Interview Highlights

On the tradition of corpse washing

It's a very intricate ritual, a rhythmic ritual, of washing the body three times and ... to go through all of that while also chanting and reciting certain phrases. And then the shrouding has to be done with a specific type of cloth, with cotton, and then the branch of a pomegranate tree, because it's believed to be sacred and is mentioned in the Quran ... and then sent to the cemetery.

The body, being God's creation and being created in the most perfect image, the body is supposed to be pure. But of course I mean it also is partly for the well-being of the living, in a way to kind of process how the living observe death and observe the dead, because the decay of the body is something that's very traumatic for human beings.

On writing about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, even though Antoon left the country in 1991

In earlier years I had these qualms about how would I write about something that I never lived through and I'm distant from. But then if we take that into consideration, then three-fourths of literature and art would be gone, because people write about lives that they did not live.

Sinan Antoon is an associate professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University.
Bassam Haddad / Courtesy of Yale University Press
Courtesy of Yale University Press
Sinan Antoon is an associate professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University.

The problem is that in this country, and in "the West" in general ... we get the American narrative, and in this country we get the narrative of the vets, which is important of course, but we never, or very rarely get the ... civilian point of view. We live in such a militarized society now that valorizes the violence carried out by armies; we never see the world from the point of view of the civilians who are on the receiving end of tanks and drones and whatnot.

And it's very tricky because it's very easy to write a scene where there's an encounter between civilians and soldiers, and the soldiers are demonized. But what I tried to show ... is that this encounter between an occupying military and civilians, is going to be humiliating and horrible and traumatic, if not violent and deadly, irrespective of any of the slogans or the intentions of the people carrying it out.

On translating the text

Every writer gets really invested in what they're writing, but the subject of this novel was so harrowing, but it's something that I was so invested in, that I lived really with those characters, and I lived with Jawad. And frankly as with the end of any book, I had this kind of postpartum depression. With this novel I really felt a major void in my life after it was done, and translating was one way of going back to all of these events and all of these characters that I had lived with for almost two or three years.

The outcome was not that great because I was even more drained and saddened when I finished the translation, it was kind of going back and living with Jawad again and seeing how he would say things in English. That's why I did it, but I'm not sure I'm going to translate my novels again. It's too much.

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